Gators survive semifinal battle with Vols
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 3:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 8:41 p.m.
ATLANTA — With Florida coming off another lackadaisical first-half performance Saturday against Tennessee, UF assistant coach Matt McCall provided a motivational spark.
Sunday's championship game
Who: No. 1 Florida Gators (31-2, 20-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (24-9, 14-6)
When: 3:15 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
McCall passed the Tennessee locker room at halftime and overheard some Volunteer players yelling “they don't want it, they don't want it.”
“He came into our locker room and told us that,” Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said. “We kind of took that personally and we went out and tried to play harder in the second half and I think we did.”
Trailing by seven points at halftime, the comeback Gators again proved the ability to overcome slow starts by finishing strong. In holding Tennessee to just 14 points and 25-percent shooting in the second half, top-ranked Florida held on to beat the Volunteers 56-49 in the SEC tournament semifinals at the Georgia Dome.
“Obviously, we're excited to be able to move on and play tomorrow,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game and a tough game. Our guys weathered some foul difficulty in the first half. I thought in the second half, we did a really, really good job defensively.”
Senior center Patric Young led the Gators with 16 points and seven rebounds. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 13 of his 14 points to keep the Gators in the game early and senior forward Casey Prather added 12 points.
“I would like to see us play closer to 40 minutes,” Donovan said. “We haven't done that here. You'd think we need to learn from that, and hopefully through those experiences, we can learn and get better from it.”
The Gators (31-2) extended their school-record win streak to 25 and moved on to the SEC tournament final for the second straight year and eighth time in program history. Florida will see a familiar opponent Saturday. Florida faces Kentucky (24-9) for the third time this season after the Wildcats knocked off Georgia 70-58 in the other semifinal. The Gators won both previous meetings, including an 84-65 win at the O'Connell Center eight days ago.
“They are a good team, but I think in both games, we wanted it more than them,” Frazier said. “We played harder than them and it showed. We were able to get two wins, but if we play them tomorrow, that means nothing.”
Asked about taking on the role as underdog to the No. 1 team in the country, Kentucky freshman guard James Young said: “I don't really care about the rankings or whatever. I just see them as another team. If we can come out with a little more energy than the last two games and I think our communications should be better, we'll be good.”
For the second straight afternoon, Florida sputtered through an uninspired first-half performance. The Vols (21-12) led by as many as 10 points in the first half, UF's largest deficit since being down 11 points Nov. 12 at Wisconsin, before a Wilbekin 3-pointer cut Tennessee's lead to 35-28 at halftime.
“It's just a bad habit of ours,” Frazier said. “The better teams get, the harder it is going to be to climb out of that hole. We got to do a better job of being focused at the beginning of the game.”
The Vols had their way inside early, outscoring Florida 20-12 and out-rebounding the Gators 14-10 in the first half. Big bodies Jarnell Stokes (260 pounds) and Jeronne Maymon (260 pounds) combined for 16 points for Tennessee in the half.
As has been Florida's pattern throughout the season, the Gators regrouped with some halftime adjustments and dialed up their intensity. Florida started the second half with a 10-2 run, taking a 38-37 lead on a driving layup from freshman point guard Kasey Hill. But the Vols answered with six straight points, taking a 43-38 lead on a Stokes jumper with 12:16 remaining.
From that point, Florida limited the Vols to just one field goal the rest of the way, a 3-pointer from guard Jordan McRae that tied the score at 49 with 2:48 left.
“The best thing we did in the second half was get our hands on a lot of balls, get a lot of deflections, steals and were able to turn those into points,” Frazier said.
Another turning point came with the score tied at 45 with 4:39 remaining. Maymon was whistled for his fourth foul when he clutched Young inside and quickly picked up his fifth when referee Pat Adams whistled him for a technical. Frazier made a pair of technical free throws and Young followed with two more free throws to put Florida up 49-45.
With Maymon out of the game, Young was able to get deep post position on a hook shot with 2:24 remaining that put Florida ahead to stay 51-49.
“I just focused on catching the ball and getting a good shot up,” Young said. “Left-handed, too.”
Then, off a Frazier steal, Prather drew an intentional foul when Tennessee guard Antonio Barton wrapped his hands around his waist on a dunk attempt. Prather made both free throws to put Florida up 53-49 with 1:21 left.
Wilbekin was called for a questionable offensive foul off an in-bounds play on the next possession, but Tennessee forward Armani Moore missed a 3-point attempt. Florida made three of its last four free throws to close out the game.
Florida overcame a halftime deficit for the sixth time during its winning streak. While the slow starts continue to create cause for concern, the Gators have at least proven the ability not to panic when playing uphill.
“It's just our mindset and our attitude going into the game,” Young said. “We can't be like that tomorrow. We have to really be locked in. Being in a championship game, the opportunity to cut down some nets, should be enough motivation for guys to come out with fire and passion. Hopefully, we do that tomorrow.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 12.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 13.0 ppg, 3.7 apg
F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr. 14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg
C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg
KENTUCKY PROBABLE STARTERS
G Aaron Harrison 6-6 Fr. 13.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg
G Andrew Harrison 6-6 Fr. 10.8 ppg, 3.8 apg
G James Young 6-6 Fr. 14.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg
F Julius Randle 6-9 Fr. 15.3 ppg, 10.6 rpg
C Dakari Johnson 7-0 Fr. 5.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg
Notes: Florida is 40-45 all-time at the SEC tournament and 25-14 under coach Billy Donovan. In his 18th season at UF, Donovan has led the Gators to three SEC tournament titles (2005, 2006, 2007) and seven SEC tournament final games (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014). … The Gators have held their first two SEC opponents this week under 50 points scoring (49 vs. Missouri, 49 vs. Tennessee). For the season, the Gators have held six opponents under 50 points. … Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is averaging 14.5 ppg, 1.5 apg and 4 steals per game in two tournament games. … The Gators are shooting 50 percent from 3-point range in two tournament games (16-of-32), with Wilbekin shooting 61.5 percent (8-of-13). … Florida coach Billy Donovan is 4-8 all-time against Kentucky coach John Calipari. … Kentucky freshman point guard Andrew Harrison had a career-high nine assists in Kentucky's 70-58 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Georgia.
Three things to watch
1. Doubling up Randle
The Gators were effective when they double-teamed Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle in the post eight days ago. When Randle was single-teamed in the second half, the 6-foot-9 forward did more damage inside. Look for the Gators to bring the double-teams early in an effort to keep Randle from drives to the basket. It could result in some open shots on the perimeter for Kentucky, but Florida will take its chances with that, given the Wildcats shoot just 32.6 percent from 3-point range.
2. Getting Frazier involved
Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II finished with just six shot attempts against Tennessee, including two in the first half. The Gators need to get Frazier in the mix offensively because the 6-foot-4 guard from Tampa is their best and most consistent perimeter shooter. Tennessee 6-foot-6 guard Jordan McRae blanketed Frazier throughout the game, and the Gators will face a bigger backcourt again Sunday in twin 6-foot-6 guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
3. Defense fueling offense
The Gators have endured some abysmal halfcourt offensive stretches in SEC tournament play, but have won by forcing turnovers and getting out in the open court. Florida has averaged 18.5 points off turnovers in wins over Missouri and Tennessee. We'll see if Florida has enough left in the tank to play a frenetic style in their third game in three days. Kentucky remains a dangerous team from a talent standpoint, so Florida is going to need plenty of hustle to gain momentum in the Georgia Dome in front of a pro-Kentucky crowd.
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